Judging Poetry Competitions

Judging poetry competitions is fairly easy, the winner usually picks itself, however, there are at least 8 stages to go through before you get there:

1. Skim-read the poems

That is check all poems entered comply with the rules.  As in the big, wide world, editors impose house styles, word counts and deadlines, so competitions impose rules.  Don’t think you can sneak your 41 line magnum opus in and win. 

For the Lawson-West Poetry Competition I went easy on handwritten entries and those who’d failed to send an SAE simply because when the competition was featured in the local paper, the full rules weren’t included.  However, any poem over-length was out.

2. Read the Poems

I had a head-start as all entrants had requested a critique so I’d already carefully read each individual entry.

3. Appreciate what each poem is trying to achieve

A street dance crew aren’t going to break out into “Swan Lake”.  Entered poems can’t be directly compared but can be considered on their individual merits.  I had lovely, gentle poems on nature and Spring and a fast, rhythmic poem on gadgetry.  But were the former as good as “Swan Lake” and was the latter as sleek as hip hop?

4. Check Structure

Did the poems use rhyme schemes, if so were they consistent?  Two poems had inconsistent rhyme schemes.  In one poem it was because there were an odd number of lines, so I looked at trimming the lines to fit the scheme.  In the other, the unrhymed lines were pivotal to the poem so it was appropriate that they didn’t rhyme as it drew attention to them, which is precisely what the poem was trying to achieve.

5. Read Aloud

Do the line and stanza breaks fall naturally or do they create tongue twisters?

6. Eliminate the Flawed

A good effort isn’t a prize-winner.  I overlooked typos in judging, but didn’t overlook presentation.  Pictures are a cute distraction.  I wanted clean, readable type and a poem that showed the writer cared about it and took care writing it.

7. Take a Magnifying Glass to the short list

Four poems made the short list, but there can be only one winner.  Judges are always hardest on the poems that nearly made it because they have to justify why they didn’t win.

8. The winner selects itself

It’s the one that did what it set out to achieve, used the right tone, right vocabulary, right rhythm, right line and stanza breaks.  Doesn’t have to shout or draw attention to itself as it is the one poem that the judge wants to go back and read and read again.

Congratulations to the winner.  Results of the Lawson-West Poetry Competition will be circulated to the entrants during week commencing 21 June with the results announced on 28 June.  Will be on Sunflower FM on 23 June to talk about poetry and maybe reading a couple of poems.

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What’s in a Critique of a Poem?

If you enter the Lawson-West Poetry Competition and make a donation to LOROS (Leicestershire and Rutland Organisation for the Relief of Suffering), you’ll get a critique or feedback on your poem.  If your donation is under £5, you’ll receive a tickbox critique.  Larger donations will get a longer critique.  So what will you get?

What a Critique of a Poem is

  • A critique is an evaluation of your poem. 
  • It will not be just criticism. 
  • It will also include what was good about your poem and why it was good.
  • It will comment on the weaker areas but give tips on how to improve these.
  • It’s about balance and helpful advice.

What a Critique of a Poem is not

  • Only criticism.
  • A focus on the weaker areas of your poem with no tips on how to improve.
  • Comments on the poet or the perception of the poet on the basis of the poem.
  • A commentary on the subject of the poem.

Personally I think being told that stanza two is weak is actually very unhelpful.  Chances are you already knew that, but couldn’t see how to make it stronger.  My approach is to explain why it’s weak and offer suggestions to get you to think about what you want that stanza to achieve and how best to achieve it.

A good critique will also help you edit other poems you have written too as you’ll see how to address the weaknesses in one poem and how to look at your own poems critically.

Tick Box Critique

The tick box critique has four areas of focus and all assesses the poem overall:

  • Title
  • Form
  • Language
  • Treatment of poem’s subject
  • Overall.

Each of the areas of focus has space for comments and there is also space for additional comments.  So what am I looking for?

  • Title – have you ever stood in a bookshop and picked up a book because the title looking intriguing?  Will your poem get read or remain on the shelf?
  • Form – does the form suit your poem?  If using a traditional form, I don’t expect strict adherence to the rules but an understanding of what makes a sonnet, ballad, sestina or your chosen form.  If you’ve used free verse, have you created a framework for your poem or merely written chopped-up prose?
  • Language – is your language appropriate to your poem?  I don’t offend easily but I do get offended by offensive words used purely to shock rather than being a coherent part of the poem.  Have you looked at the sound patterning of words?  If you use rhyme have you mangled the natural word order to achieve rhyme?
  • Treatment of poem’s subject – there’s no theme so any subject will do, but bear in mind a description of a boring Sunday afternoon in boring clichés will not win a competition.  Your subject doesn’t have to be big – a well-crafted domestic poem has a bigger chance than a sloppy war poem – but your poem has to say something.  It can contain a list but has to be more that just a list.
  • Overall – what is the overall impact of your poem?  Would I want to read more of your poems based on the one you entered?

Longer Critiques

These will look at the areas covered in the tick box critiques but in more detail with a closer line by line reading of your poem.

Will having a Critique affect my chances of winning?

No.

I will be writing the critiques separately from judging the competition.  If you chose not to make a donation to LOROS and receive a critique, I will still be reading your poem as closely as I would if you have chosen to have a critique of your entry.  There is no disadvantage to selecting to have a critique.

The advantage is that you will have feedback on your poem.

Feel free to post any questions in the comments below, but comments are moderated to filter out spam so any comment won’t appear immediately.  I will answer, but that may not be immediate either.

How to Win a Poetry Competition

I’m judging the Lawson-West Solicitors’ Poetry Competition to raise funds for LOROS (a Leicestershire-based charity).  If entrants make a donation to LOROS, they get feedback on their entry.  Getting feedback is valuable because it gives entrants an insight into how the judge read their poem as well as giving an individual indication of whether the poem came close to winning or not.

So what am I looking for in a poem?  Or what gives your poem the best chance of winning?

Words

Words in a poem have to work harder than words in prose.  A poem simply doesn’t have enough space to allow writers to think “good enough” will do.  A sloppy phrase will stand out as will the not quite right word tucked away in line three of the penultimate stanza.  If you’re not sure of the exact meaning of a word, check the dictionary and beware of homonyms where words sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.   Every word has to earn its place.

But, in poetry, it’s not just about what the words mean, but also about how they sound.  How well does a word fit with its neighbours?  Putting a polysyllabic word next to a run of monosyllables draws attention to the longer word – is that attention justified or what you intended?  Appropriate use of devices like assonance or alliteration can enhance a poem.  Overdo it and you’ve written a tongue-twister.

Read your poem aloud.  If you hesitate or stumble over a phrase, so will the judge.  Some poets record and play back their readings to listen to how their poem sounds.  You can also look at the words on the page, are there any patterning of sounds or letters?  Have you used a lot of long vowel sounds or mostly clipped consonants?   Look again at phrases that don’t seem to fit.

Rhythm

Take two phrases, “the cat sat on the mat”, “the lazy, fluffy Burmese languished on the lavish deep-pile rug”.  Both essentially say the same thing but the first has a clipped, staccato rhythm, the second a slower, drawn-out rhythm.  Both produce very different poems. 

A poem is like a dance, you wouldn’t put ballroom steps to a Latin rhythm unless you wanted to create a comic or jarring effect.  Read your poem aloud again.  Have you picked the right rhythm?

Form

Form includes rhythm but is also about how the poem is structured and laid out on the page.  Even free verse has form.  I recommend drafting the poem before choosing a form, especially a traditional form as you may find the villanelle you wanted to write actually works better as a ballad.  Let the poem chose the form and don’t try to straitjacket rhyming couplets into a sonnet or that you arbitrarily have to have nine syllables per line if this means choosing longer words where shorter ones would better serve your purpose.  Personally, I am not going to insist that a sonnet has 14 lines had follows an iambic rhythm, but I do insist a sonnet has a volte.

Poems that mangle natural word order to achieve an end of line rhyme do not win competitions.

Free verse has form too, but that form isn’t driven by rhyme.  It could be that your poem fits into three line stanzas or is better as one long stanza or conforms to a syllabic pattern.  Experiment with line and stanza breaks too.  These could come where you would naturally pause for breath at the end of a phrase or could be placed mid-phrase, using enjambment, to carry the meaning over into the next line or stanza.  This can be used to create a sense of urgency or play on the ambiguity or duality of meaning.

For example:

“Alice in her party dress-
ed to kill.”

(from “Loved” in “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”).

“Alice in her party dress” is a different image from “Alice dressed to kill” and running the two image together means the latter subverts the former.  When read aloud, carrying the double “s” sound over the line break almost creates a hiss, creating a sense of menace.  That sense would not be there if the lines were simply “Alice in her party/ dressed to kill.”

Topic

I don’t think any topic is unsuitable for a poem, although some topics need sensitive handling.  It’s worth bearing in mind that traditional subjects for poems such as war, love, death and nature have volumes of excellent poems providing some very stiff competition for yours.  Whilst First and Second World War poets didn’t have competition from armchair poets with internet access and rolling 24 hour news coverage, the poems that survived and are still anthologised today are the ones that focused on a specific aspect that gives readers a new insight into a bigger theme.  Also bear in mind that poems are not reportage: find a new angle or something new to say.

Any topic will do: it’s about whether your poem pays attention to words, sounds, rhythm and form and is a compelling read.

When reading your poem, I won’t and don’t need to know if you have actual first hand experiences of what you are describing or if you have written your poem based on second hand reports.  Poetry is fiction and, just as no one expects a thriller writer to have actually murdered anyone, a poet doesn’t actually have to have been there to be able to write about it.  But what you’ve written has to be convincing and researched.

Title

Titles are vitality important: they compel the reader to actually read your poem.

“Untitled” suggests you couldn’t be bothered, so I may not bother either.  Using the first line of the poem as the title tends to only work if the line bears the repetition.  If you pick up a weighty anthology and have time to read one poem, will you pick “Phone Call” or “Phone Call at 3 am”? 

“Phone Call” is too vague and general and inspires a “so what?” response.  On the other hand “Phone Call at 3 am?” is more compelling as the time of the phone call is unexpected and phone call at that time in the morning suggests urgent news.

Presentation

Anyone faced with a pile of poems to read will gravitate towards those that are easier to read, ie a plain piece of paper with the poem typed in a standard, reasonably sized font in a contrasting colour.  Black ink on white paper’s fine but pale pink on a floral background could be a struggle. 

Check that your margins are right for your poem too.  Narrow the margins if your margin settings are too wide for your line lengths.

Poetry is primarily about communication and that means respecting the reader.  Sloppy presentation on stained, crumpled paper or choosing a font/background combination that makes a poem difficult to read implies you don’t care for the reader.  In turn, the reader won’t care for your poem.  It doesn’t have to be immaculate, just legible.

Rules

Check your entry complies with the rules. 

No matter how great your poem is, it will be disqualified if your entry doesn’t comply with the rules.

Summary

A prize-winning poem is one that coheres words, sounds, rhythm, form and topic, has a compelling title, is legibly presented and complies with the rules.